Sunday, 21 November 2010

Food to relax with and relish

Mission statements and restaurants are a curious mix: in the case of Brasserie Blanc in Bristol, it makes clear that the establishment isn’t setting out to serve haute cuisine, but ordinary food to be enjoyed with family or friends; that its philosophy is that of a brasserie.

Unpretentious it may be, but the food is still far from ‘ordinary’ – but then, that may say more about the food that we’re used to than the proprietor’s idea of ‘ordinary’.

To start with, the building itself is really rather special – not least as it stands in the middle of a rather bland and modern, up-market shopping square (which even has the obligatory seasonal ice-rink outside at present).

Originally an 18th century Quaker meeting house, and later the home of a registery office, it’s been very sensitively converted. Given a choice, I decided to sit upstairs. At a table that perfectly fitted the gap between a pew and the back of the front one (now replaced with a walkway), it offered a lovely view, right down and into the kitchen.

The vast wine rack could almost have been an old church organ (I realise that the Quakers don’t use music as part of their worship, but bear with me: it reminded me of many of the non-conformist chapels I’ve visited).

The music was low-key lounge jazz, avoiding muzak, but just taking the edge off the quietness.

I could sit back and enjoy the scene: staff bustling around – a form of synchronised waiting as they go about their work. They reminded me of watching the horses towing cannons at speed and appearing to barely miss each other in the Royal Tournament.

Good bread and butter were supplied, plus chilled water with a big slice of lemon. The latter was just the sort of touch that is appreciated and shows a bit more thought.

I was enormously tempted by the prune and Armagnac terrine, but with the main course almost certainly destined to be meat, it seemed like the perfect reason to try the starter of the day, a smoked haddock risotto. Now I’m sure that the terrine is wonderful, but I’m also sure that this was the right choice.

It was just sublime. Beautiful, natural smokiness from the fish; the rice was superb – grains still just distinct, but soft enough to have almost melded together; a lovely little egg, perfectly poached, topped it, and the buttery hollandaise complimented everything delightfully.

Unctuous and soothing, the sort of food that mellows and relaxes you … well, I could eat that every day, frankly. Nothing complicated, nothing pretentious. Just good food done superbly well.

And accompanied by a glass of Domaine St Jean de Conques Vin de Pays D’Oc, which was light and fruity, providing a nice contrast to the lush food.

For a main course, I opted for Dutch calf’s liver with bacon, sage, a smooth mash and a lovely dark gravy.

It came with fine beans – which was a small irritation because I know perfectly well that they’re not currently in season and seasonality is also something that the Brasserie Blanc brand proclaims. But I will say that they were perfectly cooked: how do you get fine beans that are cooked but still crisp? In other words, crisp but most definitely not raw, which is how the staff canteen at work so often serves vegetables. It’s clearly an art form.

The liver was lovely – very light, almost with a mousse-like quality. Puréed potatoes great – although I can’t say that I really spotted the sage anywhere. Bacon nice and crisp too.

For this, I chose a glass of Côtes du Rhône Château de Montfaucon: bold berry tastes, but not too strong for the lightness of the meat.

In some ways, this course was always going to struggle a little after the culinary orgasm of the starter, but it was good. Very good.

My waitress – a charming young lady who was unrushed and perfectly happy to answer questions or advise on the wine – allowed me a welcome respite before dessert.

Feeling pretty much stuffed by this time, I decided to go safe and ask for ice cream or sorbet. So what flavours were on offer?

The first thing I learned was that an ice cream or sorbet dessert means four scoops.

Well how can a girl refuse? I picked vanilla and chocolate ice creams, with mango and blackcurrant sorbets. When it arrived, with the little balls of frozen wonderfulness atop a crisp biscuit, just melting to reveal their true flavour and scent, and topped with yet another biscuit, it almost felt sacrilegious to destroy the delightful presentation.

But I made the sacrifice. And the sorbets in particular were fabulously flavoursome and refreshing.

As always, I skipped coffee – I can’t drink it after a meal. For some reason, it’s as if it makes my stomach over-heat and, in the dim and distant past, has been known to send me running to the ladies.

It was an enormously satisfying meal, the thought of which lingers and will doubtless linger for some time.

Nothing over-fancy; just essentially simple food done exceptionally well, and served in a very pleasant environment by good staff.

What more can you ask for? Well indeed. But while Brasserie Blanc's mission statement might seem rather unnecessary, the following night was to show very clearly just why such a restaurant feels the need to make a statement of intent.

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